The South Asia Channel

South to Kandahar

By Peter Bergen, Afghanistan Over the loudspeaker system, a female voice announces, “ISAF flight number 44 from Kabul to Kandahar is leaving at gate 1.” Just like for any other flight we grab our hand luggage and boarding passes but what makes this boarding a little bit different is that all the passengers are wearing ...

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By Peter Bergen, Afghanistan

Over the loudspeaker system, a female voice announces, “ISAF flight number 44 from Kabul to Kandahar is leaving at gate 1.” Just like for any other flight we grab our hand luggage and boarding passes but what makes this boarding a little bit different is that all the passengers are wearing flak jackets and clutching helmets. We troop in double file to the whale-like C-130 transport plane operated by a crew of reservists out of Missouri and strap in for the ride.

On the plane is a motley crew of young Asian women likely destined to work at the massive U.S./NATO base at Kandahar Air Field, a smorgasbord of soldiers from various European countries, and American military contractors wearing their uniform of baseball caps, cargo pants and shades. Most snooze through the 75-minute flight.

As we fly south to Kandahar I start thinking about the perfectly good highway constructed for several hundred million dollars — much of it American taxpayer money — that connects Kabul and Kandahar and the fact that anyone on this flight would be likely committing suicide if they drove it without a significant security detail as it is now a gauntlet of possible Taliban ambushes.

In 1999 I took the Kabul-Kandahar road when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Then it was nightmarish slalom course though fields of massive craters and in most places was not much more than a track; a 17-hour drive if you did it without stopping. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist and the bandits who a few years earlier would have demanded payment for passage on the highway were long gone when I made that trip.

After the new highway was built I took the road a couple of times again in 2005 and 2006. Then it was a smooth, hassle-free seven-hour journey down a black-top freeway.

The fact that the Kabul-Kandahar highway is today so dangerous says a lot about the state of Afghanistan right now. If the United States, other NATO countries and the Afghan army cannot secure the road that connects the two most important cities in the country — which is also the artery through which a good deal of the commerce of Afghanistan must pass — what does that say about the overall effort to bring real security to the Afghan people?

This year efforts are in progress to secure the highway in areas near Kabul and also near Kandahar with the aim eventually of eventually securing the entire road.

Later this month the Obama administration will submit dozens of benchmarks to Congress which will help lawmakers judge if progress is really being made in Afghanistan over the next year or so. At the top of my list would be making sure the most important road in the country is open for business to anyone who wants to drive it and who doesn’t have the luxury of hiring a posse of heavily armed guards to survive the trip without incident.

Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader. He is CNN’s national security analyst, where this was originally published.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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